Keir Cutler in Teaching the Fringe (photo by Louis Longpré)
The “I’m a Genius” Syndrome. Part Two.
How NOT to conduct a reading!
by Keir Cutler
There is nothing more valuable to a new play, or a new translation of a play, than a public reading. It is an opportunity to actually hear the words spoken out loud. No matter how good something might appear on the page, a play’s real value can only be determined by being heard. Especially when actors read the various roles to an audience, followed by a talkback.
Unfortunately there also is nothing more useless, even destructive, than a reading. Especially if the reading is followed by actors, a director, a translator and a playwright explaining to the audience what they’ve just heard, and boasting about what great a job they’ve just done.
I recently attended the second kind of reading. It was a textbook example of exactly what not to do.
The piece was a translation of a successful foreign language play into English. I am not going to tell you which play, since my goal is not to criticize any future production, but to use the experience to help others who want to do a public reading.
The swearing in English was monotonous and seemed to be nothing but an endless series of “Fuck this!” and “Fuck that!”
The translation of a theatre piece is always difficult. Anyone who has studied various versions of Anton Chekhov’s plays can tell you that. While Chekhov is famous in Russian for his realistic dialogue, his plays translated into English often sound like they were written by a robot, with no sense of rhythm or authentic speech. In fact, the inability of translators to properly put Chekhov into English has led to the modern practice of having English-speaking playwrights rework these translations even when they don’t speak Russian. This is sometimes called “Mametization,” a term from David Mamet’s translation of Uncle Vanya, where the famous American writer worked from a direct word-for-word translation of the text, and turned stilted dialogue into speech that might come from actual humans.
The work I attended was decidedly not a “Mametization.” The translator, as far as I could tell, had little playwriting ability. I had seen the play in its original language, and enjoyed it. The freshness of the dialogue was one of the script's strongest assets. However, in translation, the script fell decidedly flat. It wasn’t so much that the speech was stilted, like bad Chekhov, but more that it was repetitive and lifeless. In the original language, the dialogue had characterization, in translation the words sounded like they had come from an online dictionary. The swearing in the original crackled with emotion. The swearing in English was monotonous and seemed to be nothing but an endless series of “Fuck this!” and “Fuck that!” But as I said, translating plays is always extremely difficult, and it is not surprising that, in my opinion, the translation of this play failed.
What was surprising was how the talkback was handled after the reading. The director rose from his seat in the audience and invited the playwright and translator to join him on stage with the actors. Once seated, instead of throwing the discussion open to everyone, perhaps asking, “What worked for you? What didn’t work for you?” The first question was to the playwright, a foreign-born woman who spoke very little English, but did know the word, “Yes.” He asked, “Well, was this your play?” Meaning, did you feel the translation accurately delivered your work? I thought to myself, “What a ridiculous way to start the talkback. Ask the playwright, who doesn’t speak English, what she thought of the English translation!” The playwright smiled brightly, nodded her head, answering, “Yes, yes, yes!”
The director then turned to the translator and said, “Well, you’ve clearly made the playwright happy. How did you find translating this work?” The translator, a young man with a degree in translation, immediately launched into a five-minute monologue on how great a job he had done. He explained that translation can be difficult, but with this play he had got it exactly right! He went on to tell us in the audience, who had yet to get a chance to say a single word, how brilliantly he had captured the essence of the original play. He spoke about the rhythms of speech in the original, and how he had delivered them perfectly into English. My jaw dropped in astonishment. How, I wondered, were we going to be able to comment after the playwright and translator had told us the work was virtually flawless?
The director then turned to the actors and had each one in the large cast of seven give their “feedback.” Each actor used the opportunity to plug themselves, and to tell the director how much they would love to play their character in any future full production. Not surprisingly, not one of the actors had a single word of criticism for the translation, but I distinctly felt these performers were holding back. They certainly knew how awkward the poorly translated words felt in their mouths, but stating exactly that might not be a smart career move. According to these actors all that is needed for this badly translated work is more rehearsal.
At last it was time for the audience to speak. But the director did not request feedback or opinions, instead he asked, “Are there any questions from the audience for us?”
Boom! Exactly what I thought! Bravo!
There were none.
There was a long awkward pause, as the people onstage began to realize that no one could possibly say anything after the post-reading coronation we had just witnessed.
Two or three spectators got up and left. The rest of us started planning our escape. The director decided to push, “Cm’on, there must be something! Did you enjoy the reading? Did you feel the characters were people you could relate to? This is a very successful play in its home country, you know!” Finally an elderly woman courageously lifted her hand, and said, “You know, there are other bad words in English besides “Fuck!”
Boom! Exactly what I thought! Bravo! Someone had the guts to say it. I know I didn’t. The translator jumped in. While remaining calm and confident, he condescendingly explained to the woman that she wasn’t listening carefully, and there was at least one “Shit” in the text. (Personally, I never heard the word “Shit.” But then again, I had probably tuned out after the five hundredth “Fuck.”) The translator then launched into another five-minute monologue praising his translation, while the non-English-speaking playwright heartily repeated, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” The director smiled proudly and nodded in agreement, while the seven actors dutifully turned into approving bobbleheads. At that point time ran out and the talkback ended.
Now I do realize that everyone wants to be a genius, and no one wants to hear any criticism. But the beauty of a reading is that constructive feedback can be used, and a text can be improved. Had the director given the audience half a chance, some very valuable analysis could have been received, and perhaps acted on.
So, here are a few rules for play readings.
1. If the reading is followed by a talkback. LET THE AUDIENCE TALK BACK!
2. Tell the artists to say as little as possible. Answer direct questions, but otherwise just listen. The purpose of a talkback is not to spin the audience to convince them they heard something that they didn’t hear.
3. Never, under any circumstances, allow an artist to argue defensively with a comment, or to launch into a monologue to explain away a comment. The correct answer to any criticism from the audience is always, “Thank you for that.”
4. If someone does put forward a critique, ask the rest of the audience if they agree. This can start a very valuable process, particularly if there is general consensus on a comment. If most everyone in attendance had the same impression, chances are the comment was right.
5. Finally, and most importantly, the purpose of a reading is to help produce a successful production. If there is something wrong with your script, or translation, you want to know about it right away. Don’t blow a valuable opportunity by using a talkback to tell the audience what a genius you are. Let the audience tell you!
read also Part I of the "I'm a Genius" Syndrome